Children with heart defects found to benefit from exercise

A small but compelling pilot study indicates that many children with serious congenital heart disease, who are typically urged to restrict their activity, can improve their cardiovascular function and exercise capacity through a cardiac rehabilitation program. Fifteen of 16 children participating in a 12-week rehabilitation program at Children's Hospital Boston showed significant gains in heart function, researchers report in the December Pediatrics.

Congenital heart defects affect about 8 in 1000 newborns. Due to advances in care, more and more children with these defects are surviving. Many have diminished exercise capacity after the defects are repaired, and some of this reduction is caused by a lack of activity, says Jonathan Rhodes, MD, a cardiologist at Children's who led the study.

"These kids haven't exercised much. They've been told by coaches, doctors, parents and teachers, 'Oh, you can't exercise,'" Rhodes says. "Cardiac rehabilitation is not a component of most pediatric cardiology programs."

The study enrolled 19 children, aged 8 to 17, who had congenital heart disease severe enough to consider restricting their activity and showed reduced cardiac function on exercise testing. None had findings on exercise testing that might raise a concern about the safety of rehabilitation, such as arrhythmias or chest pain. However, all 16 children who completed the program had undergone heart surgery or a nonsurgical procedure in the past, and 11 of 16 had only one functional ventricle, or pumping chamber. "This was a sick group," says Rhodes.

The 12-week program consisted of twice-weekly, hour-long sessions combining stretching, aerobics, and light weight/resistance exercises. Activities were tailored to the children's interests, and included dance, calisthenics, kick boxing and jump rope. Balls, music, games like "capture the flag" and relay races, and age-appropriate prizes were used to keep the kids motivated, and sessions were

Contact: Bess Andrews
Children's Hospital Boston

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